We all want to be liked by the people we meet. We all want to make a good first impression.

But those first few moments are tough, especially if you’re relatively shy. (Which is why, especially at events, I often do this.)

Fortunately, science has a simple answer. According to this Harvard study, asking questions–and then asking follow-up questions–dramatically increases likability.

As the authors write:

We converse with others to learn what they know–their information, stories, preferences, ideas, thoughts, and feelings–as well as to share what we know while managing others’ perceptions of us.

[People who ask more questions] are perceived as higher in responsiveness, an interpersonal construct that captures listening, understanding, validation, and care. 

Or, in non-researcher-speak, showing genuine interest in others and allowing them to talk about what interests them will make you much more likable.

Everyone’s Favorite Subject

That’s partly because people love to talk about themselves–and even if they didn’t, they can’t help it.

Research shows approximately 40 percent of everyday speech is spent telling other people what we think or feel–basically, talking about our subjective experiences. (Not just that you took a spin class last night, but whether you liked the spin class. And whether you liked the instructor. And the studio. And the other people in the class. And….)

In fact, we almost can’t help sharing our thoughts and feelings: Research also shows that talking about ourselves, whether in person or on social media, triggers the same pleasure sensation in the brain as money or food. Self-disclosure causes increased activity in brain regions associated with the sense of reward and satisfaction from money, food, and even sex.

By helping people talk about themselves, you’re seen as a great conversationalist…even when you actually say very little. 

And in the process, you also make other people feel better about themselves, which makes them like you.

The Proof Is in the Follow-Up Pudding

As the Harvard researchers write:

In particular, asking questions that follow up on the other person’s responses may cause and convey better listening, understanding, validation, and care. 

The question asker’s [my italics] responsiveness, in turn, is likely to cause him or her to be better liked by the question answerer.

Fortunately, asking follow-up questions is easy–even if you lead with the standard, “What do you do?” Simply shift from “what” to “why?” or “how?” 

As soon as you learn a little about someone, ask how they did it. Or why they did it. Or how it felt. Or what made it hard. Or what they liked about it, or what they learned from it, or what you should do if you’re in a similar situation.

No one receives too much recognition. Ask genuine follow-up questions and you implicitly show you respect the other people’s opinions–and, by extension, that you respect them.

We all like people who respect us, if only because it shows they have great judgment.

Why Does It Work? Because So Few Do It

Because science shows that people focus mostly on themselves during conversations, the Harvard researchers determined that most people also don’t realize the impact of asking questions on likability:

Neglecting to ask questions altogether may happen because people are egocentric–focused on expressing their own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs with little or no interest in hearing what another person has to say.

On the other hand, some people may think to ask questions…but it may be much easier to talk about [themselves] instead.

Which means if you turn the focus on the other person–if you ask follow-up questions that show you’re genuinely interested in not just what people do, but how they feel, what motivates them, what engages them, what makes them tick–then you’ll not only come across as more likable.

You’ll also be unusual, because you’ll be one of the only people who does so.

And best of all, you’ll build a foundation for a genuine relationship.

Because what people do is interesting, but who they are is what truly matters…and you can only find that by asking.

And then listening.

Originally published on Inc.

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